MADISON — With a Heisman Trophy candidate returning, there’s no question which University of Wisconsin running back will take the field as the starter against Western Kentucky on Aug. 31.
But the snaps behind sophomore Jonathan Taylor — and how those snaps are distributed — are more uncertain with less than three weeks remaining in the Badgers’ preseason.
UW running backs coach John Settle said that senior Chris James, senior Taiwan Deal and sophomore Garrett Groshek are the three players competing to back up Taylor during fall camp.
“I think those three young men are in it, and I think it’s a great competition,” Settle said. “We’d like to try to get four guys ready to go, understanding that three guys will probably play on Saturday, and that fourth guy better be ready.”
That group doesn’t include junior Bradrick Shaw, the Badgers’ second-leading rusher last season with 365 yards and four touchdowns in 11 games. Shaw continues to recover from a torn ACL he suffered in last year’s regular-season finale at Minnesota.
Settle said UW’s targeting Big Ten play, which begins Sept. 22 at Iowa, for Shaw’s return and that if his health continues to improve, he’ll have a chance to play at some point this season.
“Whatever happens, happens,” Shaw said. “I feel like I’ll be ready in due time. I’m really ready to come back. That’s all I can really say right now.”
Settle said Nakia Watson isn’t ready yet, although he’s not ruling out the true freshman playing a role once he further nails down the mental side of the game.
James appears to have earned the first crack at second-team reps during camp, and he’s the leader for the bulk of passing-down work — a job his solid hands and protection skills allow him to excel in. Groshek proved himself as another option on passing downs last season.
Taylor, who caught eight passes for 95 yards last year, worked this offseason on route running and said he feels prepared to fill that role if needed, although Settle and the Badgers don’t want to overload him with too many touches.
“It could depend on what game we’re in,” Settle said. “If we’re in a game where it’s more pass-oreiented, it may be a way to get him involved in the game. In a game where we want to try to run the ball a lot more, we’re going to try to save him in passing situations and use him on run downs because it’s a long season, so we’re going to try to protect him.
“Our biggest thing since we’ve been here is we want to try to get the ball in our best players’ hands, and he’s one of the better players we have. So if there’s an opportunity to get him the ball, we’re going to try to get him it, whether it’s run or pass.”
Injuries have limited Deal to just six games over the past two seasons, but he emerged as UW’s second-leading rusher and averaged 4.3 yards per carry as a redshirt freshman in 2015.
Now healthy and running well in camp, he hopes to earn his way back onto the field during his final season with the Badgers.
“Taiwan’s very hungry,” James said. “Taiwan’s one of those guys where a lot of people honestly forgot about him a little bit just because he hasn’t really been healthy. But Taiwan’s an animal, and I think he’s out here grinding every single day trying to get back to where he was, and we see it. Things that he went through ... some players would have folded, but he didn’t.”
From the infirmary
Offensive linemen Logan Bruss (right leg) and Jason Erdmann (right leg), cornerback Madison Cone (left leg), inside linebacker T.J. Edwards (right leg), kicker Rafael Gaglianone (right leg), defensive end Isaiahh Loudermilk (left leg) and tight end Zander Neuville (right leg) remained out during Saturday’s practice, while fullback Alec Ingold (right leg) was still limited.
Center Tyler Biadasz did not participate in team drills for the third straight practice, making way for Micah Kapoi to take reps with the first team.
Bruss wore a walking boot on his right foot, while Erdmann had just a protective sleeve on his right leg. Cone iced his left knee after running early in practice.
With the exception of Loudermilk, who could be out to start the season, coach Paul Chryst said he doesn’t think those who are currently out will miss games.